This poem/song is meant to sooth all girls who have been hurt by a man’s cheating. It is quite a cheerful little tune blaming men’s nature for their indiscretions and encouraging girls to avoid depression and not get hung up on these cheaters, but carry on with their lives in a positive and happy frame of mind.
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.
Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
If you didn’t know, Shakespeare was a fairly competent playwright in Elizabethan England, so much so that even today a few of his plays are still studied from time to time… I know you’re not an idiot really, so I’ll skip to the specific background to this poem/song.
This poem/song appears in Much Ado About Nothing (Act II Scene III) which is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. The story revolves around two sets of lovers and their ups and downs as others trick them into believing their other half has been unfaithful. It is performed by Balthasar, a relatively minor character, the court singer, who is addressing the main manipulators.
The message about male trickery and deceitfulness seems to address the false rumours that have made Claudio think his true love Hero has been unfaithful and ditch her at the altar. Don’t worry though, they end up happily ever after at the end!
The main thing here is love and the different approaches to it by men and women; depending on how you choose to read this you could take it to be deeply misogynistic (negative towards women) or pretty offensive towards men… or just as a harmless song of soothing.
You could also argue their is a reflection on the way people should live their lives. Carpe diem – seize the day, would sum up what the singer is trying to tell the women the song is intended for.
At first this might look like a largish poem, but notice that there is a chorus that takes up half of each stanza.
Both stanzas follow a similar pattern. The opening lines aim to console miserable ladies and to put the blame of their misery firmly on the shoulders of men. However, as mentioned above, we can view this from two different perspectives.
Women are being asked to avoid moping around in misery because of men, but surely they have every right to be upset if their partners have been unfaithful to them? Is this poem just a way of justifying some pretty terrible behaviour from men by saying that it is a natural instinct and something that has happened forever?
Alternatively can we view this as being pretty offensive to men. All men are unfaithful and unable to commit to a monogamous relationship? Really? All men throughout history are fraudsters?
We could also view the poem as being pretty neutral and not meaning to cause such indignation. If this is meant to sooth a depressed lady then this is just a way of placing blame on another party’s shoulder.
Okay, back to the specific of stanza one. After pleading with the ladies to stop sighing miserably, the song casts all men as having a deceiving nature, compares them to sailors having partners all over the place and then says they can’t commit to one woman.
Stanza two pleads with the ladies to stop singing melancholy tunes lamenting their loss, before again slagging all men off as being fraudsters since the birth of humanity.
The chorus encourages women to move on and not wallow for want of one man. There is a suggestion that they should hide their misery and try to appear positive and happy, and we’ll explore the reasons for this in the next section.
Language and techniques
I’m going to start with the chorus here, not for any particular reason other than it struck me first as being more interesting.
The singer is telling the ladies to be ‘blithe and bonny’, which is archaic language with a rough modern day translation as cheer up and smile. However, he is not telling them off for feeling as they do, but wants them to hide their ‘sounds of woe’ with a pleasant and merry demeanour. As mentioned above, we could read something sinister into this, but I think this is an acknowledgement that they are entitled to feel miserable, but also that by acting this way they will only pull themselves into a spiral of misery that will be never ending. If you brood on something it always seems worse than it is and misery is said to breed misery.
‘Hey nonny, nonny’ may sound interesting, but is really only an imitation of a cheerful song he is requesting the ladies to take up to replace their misery. However, telling ladies to ‘let them go’ is quite interesting (maybe just to me) as the implication is that women are prone to mope around after a lover even though they have done the unthinkable rather than moving on with their lives. Good advice from the poem and advice that I wish my childhood sweetheart would have taken when we moved away for university!
The opening stanza starts with the repetition of ‘sigh no more’ which emphasises the futility of being a melancholy lover. This line positions women as innocent victims in love being manipulated by, in the following line, men who ‘were deceivers ever’, so never to be trusted. This is a universal statement that tars all men with the same brush, as liars, tricksters and cheaters. However, this line also excuses men as it is no longer an individual’s fault, but it is the curse of their gender.
Next we move on to a metaphor that links the behaviour of all men to sailors. ‘One foot in sea, and one on shore’ could be compared with the common belief that sailors used to have a different girl in every port, but the phrases also means that men cannot commit to one way of life or another as the following line clarifies; ‘To one thing constant never’ links back to this idea of changeability in male lives, but also reflects directly upon their relationship with women and suggest that they are not prepared to commit to one woman forever.
In the second stanza, the opening changes slightly, but has the same meaning. Stop with your miserable songs, it’s not going to change anything is an approximate translation, perhaps with a bit less sympathy. Again this leads on to a castigation of men as the ‘fraud of men was ever so’, a phrase that again both criticises and excuses male actions as it makes cheating part of the male anatomy.
This is probably one of the easier poems to sound convincing about when discussing the use of structure.
Each stanza is a four line verse followed by a six line chorus. The verses are pretty sombre affairs trying to sooth the wounds to ladies’ hearts and this can be seen with the use of caesuras in both opening lines (and on the third line of stanza one) throughout the verses that slow the pace down to a soothing, conciliatory speed.
In contrast, the choruses end with enjambment as we speed joyfully into a bout of ‘hey nonny, nonny’. Notice that the second stanza’s chorus is subtly different as the ‘let them go’ doesn’t include a comma here so their is enjambment here, maybe suggesting that the poet’s instruction for the ladies to be more merry is being taken and he feels more confident in his jolliness.
Imagine you were trying to cheer your best friend up; you need to sound a bit sympathetic so they know you’re not just fed up with them (as the friend in Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? clearly is), but then you need to slag their partner off and talks to them about going out for a party to get over them. Well, this poem is basically the same: sympathetic, but only for a little bit and then quite merry and positive.
This poem gives us a very positive take on death. Stevenson welcomes death as a return to home and stability. He paints it as a serene scene of rest and one that will be welcomed after his life’s journey has been done. He writes his own epithet in the second stanza where death is portrayed as coming home as if to rest from the rigours of life.
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
‘Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
For once we are dealing with a writer who was actually a smash hit during his lifetime. You’ve almost certainly heard of him or his books, of which Treasure Island and Kidnapped are probably the best known (Kidnapped is also one of my favourite novels).
A Scot born into a family of lighthouse designers (you don’t hear that much anymore!), he looked set to follow this path until he began skipping the lectures of his Engineering university course. His holidays were devoted to travelling to inspect family engineering works, but it was the travel itself that he found more inspiring and soon after he embarked upon a literary career. He also moved away from his roots by distancing himself from religion and declaring himself an atheist.
Although he was a success almost immediately, his life was made difficult by his poor health. He bobbed about the world in the search of somewhere his health could be improved, but in vain. Eventually he ended up in Samoa (of all places!) and died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
This poem was written four years before his death and the epithet on his gravestone in Samoa carries the final three lines of this poem.
This poem presents death as a natural part of life and something not to be feared as it represents a rest at the end of a life’s journey. It is somewhat unusual in that it is a concept of death without any religious association and an acceptance of the nothingness of atheist belief as a natural part of existence.
What a beautiful sentiment in this poem! Stevenson shows he is ready for the end and asks simply for a grave in nature, under the starry sky. Although he is ready for death, he tells us that he has enjoyed life, but feels it is time to enjoy the next step. He is not struggling against death, but instead is ready for it.
In the second stanza, he writes his own epithet and gives his views on life. In it, he positions death as a return home and an end of the trials of life as depicted by a life at sea and that of the hunter.
Language and techniques
‘Requiem’ is a religious mass that is offered up to the dead. Although Stevenson was an atheist, he offers this poem as his thoughts and ideas about death.
We begin with a simple, pastoral image of his desired grave having only one basic requirements, namely to be ‘Under the wide and starry sky’. This simple natural image paints a serene and calm image, supported by the gentle alliteration of the ‘s’ at the end of the line, which reflects Stevenson idea of death as a type of rest at the end of our lives.
This idea of death as a positive and desirable commodity is further established by Stevenson’s readiness. He says ‘let me lie’ and says he will be ‘laid… down with a will’ and thus he is welcoming the end and is ready to embrace it.
Lest we think that he has had a wretched life and just wants it over, he repeats the idea of being ‘glad to live’ and ‘gladly die’. This demonstrates that death is simply being treated as the nature next stage of his existence and not one to be welcomed before time or to be feared or avoided.
In the second stanza, this is further reinforced by his use of the verb ‘longed’, which shows that Stevenson’s is really ready for this next stage and the release from his life’s journey.
His two metaphors for what the grave represents show us that he feels that death will be a final soothing rest. He positions death as a ‘sailor… home from sea’, which compares it to the rest from the storms and tossing of the sea that dominate a sailor’s existence. While ‘the hunter home from the hill’ suggests that it represents the end of the toil, tracking and struggle. Obviously, Stevenson was neither a sailor nor a hunter, so these metaphors represents the various strains of life and thus he feels ready to die as he is a little weary of life’s toil and simply wants to rest.
The repetition of the word ‘home’ continually reinforces this notion that death is a gentle release that we should all welcome as a natural part of our lives, at the end of our journeys.
Loads to say here.
First of all notice that each word in the poem is simple (one or two syllables at most) and the rhyme follows a simple, repetitive and regular AAAB rhythm. Stevenson is one of the most respected wordsmiths in literature and this simplicity is used to convey the sense of calm and rest he feels death represents. The words and rhyme almost lull us to rest.
We also have a crazy amount of alliteration going on. This serves the same effect with the soft ‘l’s of ‘let me lie’, ‘s’s of ‘starry sky’ and ‘h’s of ‘hunter home from the hill’.
Serene and calm, embracing death as a natural end of the struggles of life.
In this sonnet Donne examines the transition from life to death with a heavily religious focus. Comparing life to a play, a race and a pilgrimage, he acknowledges the inevitability of death, but believes that his body will be consumed by the earth and with it his sins, while his soul will return to its heavenly origins.
impute – attribute something to someone (normally with negative connotations).
This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Donne was a poet,during the reign of Elizabeth I, and, in later life and during the reign of James I, a priest. His religious beliefs play a consistently important role in his work and this is undoubtedly related to the fact that he was born into the Catholic faith that was at the time illegal and underground in England – many of his family died as martyrs for their faith.
Although Donne began his life as a staunch Catholic and deprived himself of opportunity and advancement as a result, he would later convert to Anglicanism and became a cleric for the Church.
He has a pretty interesting personal life, with his sneaky marriage getting him arrested and thrown in prison, banging out 12 children and serving as an MP. It was only after Elizabeth I’s death that he started to make a name for himself as a poet. He made a name for himself as a harsh critic of the corruption of society and the Church in his poetry.
This sonnet comes from a series called The Holy Sonnets and is thought to have been written between 1607-9. These were a series of 19 sonnets where Donne explores his religious struggles, fears and doubts. Our poem is generally seen as being the sixth in the sequence.
It is believed that they were all written when Donne was having a hard time of things in his personal life whilst also converting from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Thus this may influence the fact he sounds a bit fed up with life on Earth.
It is important to note that this is a type of meditation on what death would bring rather than being Donne facing up to a soon impending end of his life, as he would live another 20 years. However, in other work he seems to have had a bit of an obsession with the idea that our judgement day could come at any time, so maybe it was in the back of his mind.
The poem revolves around death from a religious perspective. There is a confidence that as his life has been lived as a form of pilgrimage that whatever sin he has accumulated will be left behind as the sins of the flesh, while his soul will re-ascend to heaven, pure once more.
The first four lines are the same idea explored through four simple metaphors – namely that his time on Earth was coming to an end.
Once he has finished repeating himself, he describes a greedy death beginning to consume his flesh instantaneously, but causing a split between flesh and soul. While death chows down on the flesh, his eternal soul heads up to see the face of the big guy in the clouds and face a scary (only in the sense that God is so immense that we tremble in his presence) judgement day.
Donne describes the split in a bit more detail with flesh going back to the Earth and with it all the sin he has accumulated. His soul, freed now from sin, ascends to heaven.
In the final couplet he relates how this is possible. He is forgiven his sins and attributed righteousness as this was Christ’s gift to man – dying for our sins. He thus sheds his sin, which is clearly associated with the biblical notion of only existing and developing as a result of man being in the world, made of flesh and subject to the temptations of the devil.
Language and techniques
The opening line and metaphorical comparison between life and a play is important because it immediately connects us with the idea of judgement. A play is performed to an audience and therefore so is life – in the latter case the audience is rather more important and divine. The finality of death is thus compared to the audience’s reaction upon the completion of a play, whether they whoop and cheer or throw rotten veg.
Donne choses to use a number of additional metaphors to dramatically emphasise the finality of death and it being the end of a journey. The end of the journey is not seen as a random event, but is link to the concept of religiously controlled fate as the ‘heavens appoint [his] last mile’, suggesting a predetermination behind when our judgement will come. This fact links to Donne’s notions that our judgement can come at any stage and we should be ready for it.
Another notable thing to explore here is the description of his life as ‘my pilgrimage’. A pilgrimage is a religious journey where we devote time and efforts to faith. Thus he frames the whole of his life in these terms and therefore he is suggesting he has led his life in this way.
Moving onto the second quatrain, we have this monstrous vision of a personified death that is eagerly awaiting our deaths. ‘Gluttonous death’ connects the demise of our flesh with one of the seven deadly sins, which are ravenously consumed.
However, Donne’a death ‘instantly unjoint[s]’ the flesh from the soul or spirit. While our flesh will ‘sleep a space’ or in other words remain forever more in one spot (our grave), the soul will go on.
Our souls are presented as ‘ever-waking part[s]’ implying that they have and will exist for all eternity. After the judgement from an immense – 9 parts glorious, 1 part intimidating – God leaves his soul ‘shak[ing its] every joint’, which highlights that even those living righteous lives (as Donne establishes he has through his pilgrimage stick) need to worry about divine judgement and perhaps serves as a severe warning for the less than morally squeaky clean.
After getting the nod from the big cheese, the soul ascends to heaven. This is presented as returning to its ‘first seat’ suggesting that our souls originate from heaven and from God.
In contrast Donne’s flesh is presented as an ‘earth-born body’ and therefore it will remain there forever. Along with it, ‘So falls my sins’ who return to where ‘they’are bred’, namely earth again. This connects with the concept of all sin being sins of the flesh, created by the temptations available for mankind on the world, after their fall from the divine safety of the Garden of Eden, and as a result of the meddling of the devil.
In the final line this is made clear. The soul is freed from the triple threat sin creators ‘the world, the flesh, the devil’ and returns to the purity of its divine roots.
You should also deal with the second to last line as it is intriguingly poised. ‘Impute’ normally means to give negative attributions to something, but here we are imputing him ‘righteous’, which doesn’t seem like a terribly bad thing. Indeed it isn’t; this line is referring the sacrifice of Christ, who supposedly died for all human sin and thus through his sacrifice enabled us to be forgiven our earthly sins when it comes to our judgement day. His sacrifice thus enabled Donne (in his meditation) to be ‘purg’d of evil’.
For more good stuff, check out the excellent Cross-Ref analysis.
This sonnet follows a Petrarchan structure with an double ABBA rhyme scheme and two quatrains being followed by a sestet.
The sestet is used to demonstrate the divinity of our souls and the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in helping us get a ticket back to our heavenly origins.
You could comment on the use of enjambment in the opening quatrain, which slows the poem down to a contemplative state that reflects the fact that the end of our lives/a play becomes the time for final judgement and review of its worth.
There is a confidence in this poem that can only be expressed as immovable faith in the writer’s own morality and the certainty of his ascension. However, this confidence also has a sharper edge of judgement with some implied criticism of earthly society and warning for those who are maybe not quite so focused on leading their own lives as pilgrimages.
Wow! My first Blake poem and we’re smacked bang in the face with some scintillatingly beautiful imagery.
He paints the night sky with an image of Venus’ constant silver glow gently coaxing the world to bed and bringing stillness and silence to the world. Its light is positioned as being protective and keeping out the evils of the world, but only for so long. The poem ends with a plea for Venus to stay and protect his flock from the dangers of the night.
As always, the poem isn’t that simple and where Blake positions Venus, we can also see an analogy relating to mankind’s relationship with God.
dusk – the moment before total darkness of night has descended;
dun – dull, grey/brown colour.
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares through the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flock are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thin influence!
William Blake (1757-1827)
Another contender for the title of GOAT (at least in British eyes), Blake actually enjoyed very little renown during his life and only posthumously became recognised as one of the seminal names in poetry.
Although he had an interesting life, I simply haven’t got time to give you any sort of overview. Instead you will have to be content with information relating specifically to this poem.
Blake was deeply religious, but was quite passionately anti-organised religion. Throughout his life he claimed to have had religious visions and considered religion to be something of a personal experience rather than something to be dictated by a priest. In fact, he castigated organised religion for its constant desire to ‘lays his curse on the fairest joys’ or, in other words, to disapprove of all the enjoyable elements of life – a suggestion that some have related to his more relaxed attitudes towards love, marriage and sexuality.
In this poem he not only creates a pastoral scene of splendid natural beauty, which he ties to sexuality. He also appeals directly to the Big Man Upstairs to keep him on the straight and narrow.
This is another poem that has a clear dual theme of the restorative power and beauty of sleep, while at the same time acknowledging a religious power that is represented through the protective power of the light in the dark.
This poem is a sonnet of appreciation and love directed towards the brightest star in the night sky. This star is in fact a planet and not a star. Although it looks like a star, you can usually tell it is not because it is brighter than all the rest and has a constant light rather than the twinkle twinkling of actual stars off in the far reaches of the cosmos.
The opening line immediately connects this star with the idea of divinity and heaven by personifying it as an angel. Blake proceeds to create devastatingly beautiful imagery of this star emerging as the sun dips down below the mountains, as Venus becomes visible as the sun sets. This beauty is seen as a form of loving embrace that soothes us or watches over us as we retreat to our beds.
We also have a sexual connection as Venus looks out ‘on our loves’ and as we are rustling under the sheets, closing out the day and creates a romantically beautiful and sensuously calm scene for our slumber/rustling. This consists of a sprinkling of silver light and the star bringing the wind to a gentle, lightly rippling rest upon the water/world.
As the poem develops Blake fears the withdrawl of Venus’ light as the planet rotates and we (in the Westerner hemisphere) can no longer see it. With the loss of this protective light, the wolf and the lion begin to range and hunt, which represents spiritual dangers and the temptations that many lead us to stray from our religious morality.
However, Blake feels like the lingering silver dew left by Venus is enough to protect those bathed in it. This clearly links to spirituality and the light cast upon the darkness can be seen as the strength to resist temptation provided by religious faith and morality.
Language and techniques
You may have notice that this poem is a sonnet and thus its title ‘To the Evening Star’ is a loving dedication to something Blake admires. In this case it is not the star (or planet), but the divine role he ascribes to it that is the subject of his affection.
While the use of ‘evening star’ to represent Venus is not as familiar an expression nowadays as it was in Blake’s day, the term is still used to represent Venus’ status as the first visible star. It is also known as the wandering star as it seems to move more quickly across the sky than the distant real stars and disappears more quickly from sight as the Earth rotates us away from it.
The star/planet is personified in the opening line as a ‘fair hair’d angel’, which immediately connects it with purity and beauty, so much so that this object is associated with royalty with a ‘radiant crown’ and deified as an angelic presence. Blake’s develops this celestial essence assigned to Venus by describing it in terms that make it seem to watch over and protect the human race.
The first of these roles is to cast light on the Earth when the Sun disappears. Blake uses a vivid image of Venus appearing just as the ‘sun rests on the mountains’, with its light protecting the Earth from complete darkness with a smooth transition from daylight to its ‘bright torch of love’. As a torch clearly this light is weaker than the Sun, but a torch helps us find our way in the darkness. Here Blake creates a duality of meaning as this is both literal light being cast on the world and also him referencing faith and religious belief as being lights guiding us away from the dangers of the dark or temptation.
Perhaps you could also connect this to sexual shenanigans. It is a light ‘of love’ and ‘smiles upon our evening bed’ and ‘our loves’. Thus the light guides us to bed and watches over our loving. Perverse stars/planets, that is why I would always suggest drawing your curtains! This notion is further supported by the fact that Venus was also the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty.
As the sonnet continues it actually becomes clear that the Evening Star protects us perversity as it soothes us to bed as it draws the ‘blue curtain’ closed and transitions us to night. As it does this it scatters a ‘silver dew’ upon the Earth on all things that find ‘timely sleep’ and thus avoid the darkness and thus temptation. Literally this dew is the silvery light cast upon the Earth by the light of the stars, which is then given a physical residue with the dew or wetness we find upon the grass upon a spring morning.
As the star closes the curtains on the day and casts protective dew across the Earth, so to does it bring the world to peace. By its influence even the ‘west wind sleep[s] on the lake’, leaving an image of a gently ‘glimmering’ reflecting off the calmed waters of the lake. All these elements not only combines to form a vivid and majestic piece of natural imagery, but also reflect a calm and serene mood and atmosphere to the scene.
Why is this protection needed? Blake symbolises the dangers of temptation or straying from the path of the faithful with the ferocity of the animal kingdom. In the dark the ‘wolf rages’ and the ‘lion glares’ through the foliage whilst stalking its prey. Both these metaphors represent the dangers that lurk, hidden in the darkness. The use of the word ‘rages’ suggest these dangers are associated with hatred, anger and bitterness. The animals used to represent this danger are those we would most associate with ruthlessness, stealth and ferocity and thus we should reflect that Blake wants us to recognise the magnitude of the dangers for those straying from the path of the faithful.
If we connect these ideas with sexuality we can see that the physical act of sex is a primal and animalistic, which opens us up to the risk of giving into these savage passion, just as animals. I’ve not explained this well, but have a look here for a better explanation. This interpretation does stray from my idea of Venus being protective and sees it as an alternate to God in that it supports our more sensual side.
However, never fear as Venus will protect us from these urges!
The concept of this physical dew cast down protectives by the Evening Star is revisited in the final two lines. Now it is referred to as ‘sacred dew’ and thus innately connected with a divine role, specifically to ‘protect them with thin influence’ from the temptations and dangers of the dark. The ‘them’ in this case have earlier been referred to as ‘our flock’, terminology that is intimately connected with Christian faith and the belief that God is our shepherd and faith protects us from evil.
This is a very unusual sonnet as it does not follow the rhyming conventions of either Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets and instead has no rhyme scheme at all.
The fact it is a sonnet demonstrates the love or appreciation that Blake directs towards faith, but the lack of rhyme could be seen in two ways. I interpreted it as a deliberate attempt by Blake to focus us on the simple natural beauty of this dusk time scene, stripping back the poem to allow the imagery to dominate. However, you could also see this as being an artistic challenge to the rules, as Blake was a bit of an individual.
Even without a rhyme scheme as such, we do see a number of internal rhymes within lines (bright – light; smile – whie; sky – thy), which I see as Blake indicating that even though this is a rustic, simple pastoral image, its sheer beauty inspires rhyme and order.
You should also make some mention of the consistent use of consonance alliteration throughout the poem. Throughout line 6-10 notice how much ‘s’ sounds we are given. The effect is much like the shushing of the wind being described as the poem soothes us towards silence and rest.
Throughout we have an air of worship and awe towards this celestial figure. At times Blake runs away with his enthusiasm for the beauty of the imagery, or of the act of physical love, but at the end of the poem he is very much back to recognising the vulnerability of man and thus is supplicant towards the heavens and their protective powers.
You’ve probably noticed by now that every time you load a page the design is completely different. I’ve changed the website theme and been fiddling with ways of making it easier to navigate and read posts.
Hopefully it is coming together and starting to look alright, but if you see anything offensive to your eye or could make any suggestions for improvements, I’d be happy to investigate.
In addition, there are probably still a few dead links out there, so please let me know if you come across any problems and I will get around to fixing them as soon as humanly possible.
Mr Sir x
You may have noticed a few problems with the site in the last few days/week. I can assure you that it wasn’t my fault, but one of the plugins for the site had a bit of a tizz and left us offline for a couple of days.Once my webhost had kindly restored the site for me with one of their backups, I’ve been trying to get things back to normal.
For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, a lot of the plugins I used previously have either stopped working entirely or simply been deleted from the site. In attempting to rectify the changes, I have mucked a few things up. Adverts seem to be doubling up for some reason, links don’t direct to the right place and pictures are displaying oddly.
However, I’ve figured out the problem with the links and the adverts and hopefully that should be sorted by the end of the day – so you should be able to find the analysis you are looking for.
The bigger issue is this has caused me more delays in actually writing new posts and getting the AS selection finished. Patience, please!
Our poem is an extract from the epic poem ʼParadise Lost’ where Milton explores Adam and Eve’s spectacular mucking up of a lifetime in paradise, while also giving us his insight into the primordial war between God and Satan.
In this section, we are presented with a resplendent image of dusk, which in its majesty calms and soothes the world to sleep. Milton’s Adam reflects upon the nature of day and night and basically tells us that we need to enjoy our slumber as in the day we need to be working hard to maintain the perfection of God’s creation.
As well as giving us a reflection upon this specific part of the Bible, there is a general message that permeates about how we should live our lives.
sober livery – plain clothes;
clad – dressed up in;
slunk – crept quietly;
descant – melody sung above another song;
firmament – heaven;
Saphirs – sapphires;
Hesperus – another name for Venus (the planet);
repose – a state of rest.
Now came still Evening on, and Twilight gray
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompanied; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale.
She all night longer her amorous descant sung:
Silence was now pleased. Now glowed the firmament
With living Saphirs; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the Moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light,
And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw;
When Adam thus to Eve: “Fair consort, the hour
Of night, and all things now retired to rest
Mind us of like repose; since God hath set
Labour and rest, as day and night, to men
Successive, and the timely dew of sleep,
Now falling with soft slumberous weight, inclines
Our eye-lids. Other creatures all day long
Rove idle, unemployed, and less need rest;
Man hath his daily work of body or mind
Appointed, which declares his dignity,
And the regard of Heaven on all his ways;
While other animals unactive range,
And of their doings God takes no account.
Tomorrow, ere fresh morning streak the east
With first approach of light, we must be risen,
And at our pleasant labour, to reform
Yon flowery arbours, yonder alleys green,
Our walk at noon, with branches overgrown,
That mock our scant manuring, and require
More hands than ours to lop their wanton growth.
Those blossoms also, and those dropping gums,
That lie bestrown, unsightly and unsmooth,
Ask riddance, if we mean to tread with ease.
John Milton (1608-1674)
I read an excellent, detailed overview of Paradise Lost that you can read here for some good context. It is a bit thick and wordy though, so you may want a quick synthesis, which I will offer here. I’ll give you a bit of background about Milton and explain how this section fits into the whole.
Milton is one of the names in poetry and sits atop many people’s lists of greatest poets (I believe the youth would refer to him as a GOAT). He had a privileged upbringing, which included a live in tutor – who first introduced him to radical religious ideas. Originally studying to become a priest, his religious ideas led to several controversial moments in his life beginning with being suspended from university for quarrelling with his tutor over their respective religious ideas.
His Puritan beliefs in reforming the Church (dealing with its excesses and riding it of political meddling) put Milton on the Parliamentarians side during the English Civil War (1642-1661) and he served as a propagandist for Oliver Cromwell’s government. His religious ideas remained a fundamental part of his life even when he fell from influence after Cromwell’s death.
Paradise Lost expresses many of Milton’s religious convictions as it explores man’s fall from Eden and the war between God and Satan. However, despite mankind eventually screwing up and being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Milton does not condemn our species, but instead presents Eden as being a bit of an unrealistic gated-community that didn’t serve mankind or God as it did not give us the freedom to worship him effectively and enjoy our own freedom.
This section of the poem positions the night as a time for peace and rest, but positions this as being the prize for man’s daily toil, which is presented as being focused around dedication and worship of God.
The imagery of the evening creates a reflection on the role of sleep and rest in our lives. The magnificence and regality of the description indicates the power and importance of sleep.
However, the rest of the poem hints that this need not simply be a literal interpretation of the night, but also could be a representation of what awaits us after we reach the end of the daily grind. If we have worked hard to lead a worthy life there is a promise of the peace and rest of the night/heaven.
Although this is all organised into one mega stanza in the collection, for the sake of ease I am going to refer to stanza one (the first twelve lines creating imagery of the evening) and stanza two (Adam’s reflections on the importance of the evening/its role).
Before that though, let’s look at the title. Paradise Lost refers to the fall of both Adam from Eden and Lucifer from Heaven. However, our little sub-title, Evening in Paradise tells us something interesting too.
There is duel meaning here. Do we consider every evening to be a kind of paradise based on the stillness and rest that accompany it? Or are we considering Paradise as a conceptual place that we are striving to reach in the evening of our lives? I believe this is deliberate and we have both a reflection on the beauty of the night and a suggestion that a state of permanent Paradise and rest can be achieved at the end of our lives should we lead a worthy existence.
Stanza one begins with a piece of figurative imagery describing how the personified Evening dresses the world in calming, dull gray to signal the time for rest. As the animals retreat to their beds, we are left with only the beautiful loving song of the nightingale above the silence. The world surrenders to silence and stillness, but this is presented like an audience settling down at the theatre in anticipation and respect of the magnificent spectacle to come.
Indeed, Milton presents the evening in terms of regality and even divinity. With the stars painted as heavenly sapphires and Venus (Hesperus) even brighter still decorating the stage before the Moon arrives with the air of royal majesty. The sparkle of sapphires upon the silence of the evening is complimented by the silver cast from the Moon over everything.
If you read this opening part of our section of the poem and didn’t get a clear image of a beautiful, clear night sky making everything in the world seem somehow mystical and special, then I think you need to revisit it. This imagery is extremely powerful and contains within it Milton’s judgements about what we should appreciate in life and anticipate in heaven.
The second stanza moves away from describing the evening and onto Adam’s reflection upon its role. He tells Eve that they must embrace the night and get their heads down. While animals may still be sneaking around, hooting or doing God knows what in the evening, Adam suggests that mankind is different and needs to rest as we have spent our days labouring in God’s name.
We then get a more detailed account of the type of labour mankind should be employed in during the day, which basically equates to tidying up and making everything look pretty to keep God happy. Now I am sure this doesn’t just mean that God enjoys horticulture, but really suggests we should be sprucing the world up through spiritual actions and living our lives in the right way. Basically creating an earthly paradise through our actions.
The last line seems to imply that if man is not doing this then he might not be able to reach this Paradise either on earth or after death. I will explain more in the next section.
Language and techniques
Okay, let’s deal with the title first.
The title of this section indicates that the evening is some sort of paradise. This could simply be hyperbole to emphasise the beauty of restful night, but also connects the description to heaven through association with the whole of Paradise Lost. This title of the wider poem focuses on Adam and Eve’s departure from the paradise of Eden and Satan’s fall from heaven and thus the paradise described in our section has the very same connotation.
Therefore we have dual meaning throughout the description of the evening. We should see it as both beautiful in its own right and as a representation of the peace and rest promised by heaven at the end of our long toil. Notice that the ‘Evening’ is capitalised as if to suggest that it is something specific and important rather than an every day event and thus it may represent the evening of our lives – i.e. after we have snuffed it.
‘Silence’ and ‘Twilight’ are personified and presented as being of some status as their arrival is a cue for wildlife to rest and one that is followed without grumbling. These form a sort of welcome committee for the yet more important guests in the form of the ‘living Saphirs’ (stars), ‘Hesperus’ (Venus) and the ‘Apparent queen’ the Moon. Evening and Twilight transform the world to make it a fitting place for such exalted figures.
Notice the way Milton uses absence of colour and to do this. The world is made ‘still’ and restful by being covered by the ‘sober livery’ of Twilight’s ‘gray’ cloak, as if all colour and liveliness is subdued. ‘Sober’ here means unexciting or uninteresting and thus it is a deliberate attempt to make the world a more boring place in order to bring peace. In addition, ‘Silence was pleased’ as this recolouring of the world is automatically obeyed by all life. Animals retreat to ‘nests’ or ‘couch’ suggesting that they are settling and becoming still. Even the verb used to describe their motions toward their places of slumber, ‘slunk’, has connotations of gentle, lethargic movements as if everything is slowing down.
On the one hand, Milton has used multi-sensory imagery to set up a peaceful natural scene in his readers’ mind’s eye, but we could also consider this to represent death as it is almost reminiscent of a respectful funeral scene.
Why, you may well ask, does Silence allow the nightingale to sing on? If we are considering this as simply a scene, the nightingale is renowned for the beauty of its song, which is soft and melancholic and thus compatible with creating a restful environment. While the nightingale also has association with unrequited or lost love, which could mean Milton is using its ‘amorous’ song to represent the impact of our death: all problems are resolved and conflicts ended, but possibly leaving behind a lover or partner mourning their heart’s loss. Its ‘wakeful[ness]’ representing the fact that this is the only issue that death fails to resolve.
In the middle of line 7 we begin with the real show. From calm and peaceful, Milton builds resplendent and sparkling imagery of the night sky filling with ‘living Saphirs’ and ‘Hesperus… [riding[ brightest’ as a kind of jewel in the crown. By comparing the stars and Venus to jewelry, Milton elevates their worth and beauty making them desirable and suggesting the scene is of unspeakable value. Topping this off, the Moon casts her ‘silver mantle’ over the scene, thus transforming the imagery from being peaceful to being magnificent and grand. Setting the Moon as ‘apparent queen’ and describing her ‘clouded majesty’ further implies the splendour of the imagery Milton is trying to create.
You may make a point about how the Moon is also referred to as giving off a ‘peerless light’, which would suggest this scene is not to equalled in the daytime or if we are considering the whole imagery of an analogy of heaven, that life on Earth cannot match the magnificence of life in heaven.
What is interesting about the use of such grandiose terms in Milton’s depiction of the evening, is that these associates stand in contrast to the reality of the image. Really we have a perfect scene of natural beauty and splendour, yet the only way Milton can communicate an equivalent beauty is to compare it the absolute highest pomp and regality of human existence.
Moving onto the second section, Milton uses Biblical Adam to examine the role of the night for mankind. As with animals, the night seems to compel us to bed. The ‘timely dew of sleep’ gentle forces our eyelids closed with ‘soft slumberous weight’, suggesting a gentle compulsion to bed. The evening and ‘rest’ are juxtaposed with the ‘labour’ of the day, again highlighting the soothing role of the night.
In my mind, from line 7 onward, we move more firmly into the evening serving as an analogy for heaven. Milton makes a distinction between the ‘idle, unemployed’ animals and mankind whose ‘pleasant labour’ ‘declares his dignity’. Rather than referencing the physical labour of man, this relates to worship offered up to God as Milton position this labour as ‘reform[ing]’ the ‘wanton growth’ of the world. In other words, through worship and following the way of life set out by the Bible, we set about making the world a better place. As mankind has ‘the regard of Heaven’ watching over everything we do, the way we live our lives and our level of spirituality will determine whether we are on the naughty or nice list when we finally bite the dust.
The analogy of labouring in an overgrown garden continues until the end of the poem and may represent the new Eden that Adam and Eve attempted to nurture on Earth. Regardless the imagery serves to show that the work is continuous and ‘require[s] more hands than ours’ suggesting that worship must be ongoing and a key part of our lives. Only if we attend to the ‘unsightly and unsmooth’ aspects of our existence can we ‘mean to tread with ease’. This final line implies that this lifelong labour will eventually be rewarded with a state of paradise, which is surely meant to be represented by heaven in the role of night to our lives’ day.
Make sure you mention the contrast between the gentle splendour of the night/heaven in the opening section and Adam’s picture of continuous labour during the day. This contrast serves to demonstrate what Milton feels a spiritually good life will be rewarded with.
Within the poem there are many examples of alliteration, particularly used to achieve a soft and calming atmosphere when Adam describes the role of night and the life of the faithful. In the evening, life is ‘retired to rest’ and the ‘soft slumberous weight’ of sleep upon our eyes. While in the day, we ‘declare [our] dignity’.
You could also mention the overall pace of the poem, which is slow throughout thanks to many caesuras. This contributes to the overall mood of reflection and the imagery of the evening as a still, calm and relaxing environment.
From the outset we have a tone of admiration for what the night represents. Even when Milton switches from narrative to Adam’s voice, the tone is one of devotion to a higher power with a link drawn between what our lives should consist of and what awaits the faithful when our day finally comes to an end.
I am back! The baby, the dog and the wife are all asleep, which makes for a wonderful time to join Sir Philip Sidney in praise of slumbering.
Another poem from his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, this one focuses on his desire for his lover’s angst to be soothed by the sweet embrace of sleep. It follows a sonnet where he is dreaming of Stella’s beauty and thus is a wish to return to it.
He sings Sleep’s praises and promises to worship it if it will sooth him as it does others, then does that with offering such as a pillow, silence and darkness, which Sleep usually laps up. Obviously what is really happening is that he is tossing and turning with his mind overwhelmed by his romantic desires/problems, thus he is basically praying for Sleep to give him a break and let him get back to his pleasant dreams.
baiting – in this context, I think it means abating: so where wit stops and thoughts take a break;
proof – strength – basically a strong shield;
prease – old fashioned form of the word press, as in being pressed/pursued by someone to do something;
doth – does;
garland – a crown.
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
The indifferent judge between the high and low;
With shield of proof, shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts Despair at me doth throw;
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
For a longer introduction to Sir Philip Sidney read the context section of an earlier post about Sonnet 31 from the same collection: Astrophela and Stella – Starlover and Star
This collection was all about his obsession for another man’s wife. It included 108 sonnets and 11 songs which take you through all the ups and downs of being obsessed with someone.
Our sonnet is the 39th from the sequence and immediately follows a sonnet all about a rather pleasant dream that Astrophel (Starlover/Sidney) was having about Stella (Star/Penelope Devereux). This suggests that Sleep is being appealed to in order that our lover may return to his pleasant dream, but alongside this we must recognise that if he is clamouring to get back to the land of nod, then clearly the reality of his love life is not all that.
This explores the idea of sleep as a magical cure to all the woes of life. Dreams are cast as a protector from the realities of existence, which in this case refers to the fact the object of his desires is married and doesn’t fancy an affair.
The sonnet begins with an appeal to a personified Sleep to come to Astrophel’s rescue. In the opening Sleep is praised for easing the worries and bringing moments of peace for prisoners, those struck by poverty and in fact of anyone, high or low, in the world.
In the second half of the opening octave, he makes his plea to Sleep clear. He wants Sleep to use its shield to protect him from Despair’s darts, which represent the reality of his unrequited love. He describes his state of mind as being at war and promises worship if Sleep is able to bring his suffering to an end.
Next after the volta (line 9), he defines exactly what he can offer Sleep. On the face of it a pillow, darkness, silence and a sleepy man don’t seem like a particularly appealing gift, but remember who he is addressing; Sleep normally laps up these things. However, Astrophel has an ace up his sleeve, if Sleep is being more particular than usual, and offers to show Sleep the perfect image of Stella that exists in his mind/dreams. Thus confirming the reason he is up tossing and turning, and what he wants to get back to sleep for.
Language and techniques
Oodles of interesting bits and bobs here.
First, we have Sleep being capitalised and thus personified here. This is done to show reverence to it and its power to sooth our worries. Sidney’s Astrophel is desperate for Sleep’s help and thus treats it as if it were not only a person, but an almost god-like figure. ‘O Sleep’ sounds like the beginning of a prayer and the reverence is intensified by the titles Sidney bestows upon Sleep.
These titles come in the form of metaphors demonstrating the power of sleep: A ‘certain knot’ demonstrate a double surety that sleep will deliver ‘peace’; the ‘baiting place of wit’ might have a modern interpretation as a place where funny people get annoyed, but in this archaic use of the words means simply that the mind gets a chance to stop and relax; ‘the balm of woe’ suggests that if we apply sleep like a cream for a rash it should clear things up. We also have three more metaphors that make up Sleep’s rather impressive title, which are focused more specifically.
It is pretty crap to live in poverty (stating the obvious!), but sleep is ‘the poor man’s wealth’ insomuch as it offers some respite for the struggles of their existence. Similarly, prisoners have it pretty tough (not in the UK nowadays with their Playstations and TVs – I think it was tougher in the sixteenth century) and sleep gives them some form of ‘release’, but thankfully doesn’t just let them all out at night and only let’s them escape their cares for a few hours. Sidney finishes the title with Sleep positioned as ‘an indifferent judge’ who treats ‘high and low’ with the same respect and offers them some comfort and calm.
In line 5, we move onto exactly what Astrophel wants and why he needs it. A ‘shield of proof’ basically just means he is after a strong metaphoric shield to protect him from the constant ‘prease of those fierce darts’ being flung by a personified Despair that has all the ammunition it needs from the misery of Astrophel’s unrequited love. To further convince Sleep of his need he describes his mental health as a ‘civil war’ with his obsession no doubt slaughtering the rational side of his brain.
In return for this shield, Astrophel offers ‘good tribute’, which can be taken simply as some form of payment, but I think also suggest some sort of future devotion/worship. As the octave ends, the sestet offers us a glimpse of some of what is on offer: ‘smooth pillows, the sweetest bed, a chamber deaf to noise and blind to light’. Basically he is able to offer ideal sleeping conditioning along with a ‘weary head’, which should make sleep an inevitability. The fact that it is not suggests that his mind is not settled with the miserable state of his love life.
This should be enough for Sleep, but in reality Astrophel recognises that these are ‘thine by right’, so are always required by Sleep and therefore nothing special. Therefore, he offers ‘Stella’s image’ as it is in his mind and dreams, the word ‘livelier’ suggesting that she someone exists more perfectly within him than in reality. Now as an offering, I would say that this is pretty lame, but it illustrates just how highly Astrophel values his love that he thinks her image to be worthy of offering up in worship.
Not a huge amount to say here.
This is a Petrarchan sonnet with an opening octave setting out the issue and a concluding sestet suggesting a successful resolution.
I’d comment on the opening exclamation and how that begins the idea of Sleep being held in reverence, backed up by the long succession of titles accorded it.
You could also mention the abrupt end of a run of four lines all featuring caesuras and maintaining a slow, prayer like tone, which is shattered by the sense of despair conveyed in the words and the enjambment as Astrophel describes how his emotions chase and wound him.
For the most part this poem is reverential, but it is also always tinged with sorrow as Sidney positions Sleep as a god of mercy who can end the woes of his waking existence.
Just a quick post to let you know why I am so quiet at the moment and to outline my plans for the next year or so.
At the beginning of July I relocated from Uzbekistan to the Netherlands and this time I think I will be settling. My son was born here in April and I am now struggling to get to terms with the complete change in my circumstances: I’ve never been so exhausted in my life.
Added to the stresses of a new language, culture and baby, I am also starting at a new school, which is actually an IB school. In the short term, this will not affect the focus of the site, but I make no promises beyond the next couple of years. The main reason this is significant is that it means that I have very little time to work on the site. My plan is to get AS notes finished by Christmas and then make a start on the A2 Andrew Marvel collection.
I hope you will excuses the slow down and as always please get in contact if you have specific questions or issues you want help with.
This Shakespearean sonnet comes from a longer sonnet series called Delia where, for the most part, our poetic voice wallows in depression as he sees Delia’s rejection of his advances as acts of cruelty.
Our sonnet, number 45, sees a wish to escape the suffering of day time with the oblivion of sleep. Sleep is addressed directly and asked to take away the pain that dominates his waking hours. However, towards the end of the sonnet it becomes clear that he doesn’t want a dream filled sleep, but rather craves complete escape, going so far as to suggest he really wants the everlasting sleep that is death.
care – worries/problems;
sable – black clothing/colour associated with mourning and funerals;
languish – stuck in a weak or feeble position;
suffice – be enough;
scorn – look down upon someone as despicable or worthless;
aggravate – make something worse;
in vain – without results/empty;
disdain – complete contempt or lack of respect.
Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born:
Relieve my languish and restore the light;
With dark forgetting of my care, return,
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease dreams, the images of day desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising sun approve you liars,
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow.
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.
Samuel Daniel (1562-1619)
Unusually for a poet, Samuel David doesn’t seem to have led a very interesting life. He came from a respectable family, did well for himself throughout and didn’t end up killing himself, losing out in love or wasting all his money. He was one of the most successful and respected writers in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
As I mentioned in the overview, this poem comes from a sequence of sonnets called Delia where, as usual, a guy is chasing a girl and moping about the fact that she isn’t interested. This was Daniel’s first published work and came out in 1592. It reads like it is following poetic tradition rather than mirroring any great event or pain of the poet’s life.
Daniel explores the dark side of love here, by welcoming the oblivion of sleep. However, he is pretty specific about the type of sleep he wants and that turns out to be more like death. Sleep and death are seen as soothing forces that can shut out or erase the troubles of worldly existence.
As a Shakespearean sonnet, this is split into three quatrains and then a final couplet that rounds things off.
In the opening quatrain, our poetic voice addresses a personified Mr Sleep. He gives Mr Sleep his full title in Gladiator-style, referencing his father and brother as the night and Death respectively. He asks Mr Sleep to ease his suffering and to help him banish his worldly worries and misery.
Moving on, he tells Sleep that he has enough misery during the daytime, which he seems to have brought on himself through some disastrous love-life decision making in his youth. However, he then begins to redefine what he is looking for. He explains that he doesn’t want dreams that will spark further hope and desire in the day, calling these ‘night’s untruth’, but wants an escape from all these false hopes that are driving him to depression.
If he wasn’t clear enough, he tells dreams to bugger off at the beginning of the third quatrain. He explains why, the deceptive gits cause hopes that will just make him feel even worse when they turn out to be forlorn.
Well, by now our poetic voice has worked himself up into a really state of misery. The climatic couplet at the end of the poem explains that he wants to sleep with an empty head and wants this to last forever. Permanent sleep of nothingness? Sounds a lot like wishing to be dead to me.
Language and techniques
The whole sonnet is addressed to a personified ‘Sleep’. This enables our poetic voice to explore his misery through pleading for relief. It also makes Sleep god-like in its powers. As a ‘care-charmer’ and a figure that can ‘relieve my languish’, Sleep is imagined as being able to provide some sort of magical release from the pain of life.
However, even at the this stage of the poem (before it becomes obvious that Death is more the poetic voice’s cup of tea), there is a suggestion that Sleep doesn’t have all the skills required. There is something false about being a ‘care-charmer’, as if Sleep is only able to sooth the pain as some sort of trick, but not provide a lasting remedy.
The association between Sleep, night and Death is established early on in the poem. The fact that the poet longs for their embrace suggests the deeply dark nature of his mood. As the ‘son of the sable night’ we also have a connection with death and suffering (sable being a specific colour associated with funerals). Although the poem doesn’t relate his suffering in relation to a death, the link serves to exaggerate his lover’s melancholy into a form of hyperbolic bereavement. This is further achieved with the use of the funereal ‘mourn’ and ‘grief’ in the second and third quatrains.
We don’t get a clear understanding of exactly what has caused the poetic voice’s misery in this sonnet, but there is a hint at the end of the second line. He feels associate with Sleep, night and Death because they are all ‘in silent darkness born’. This implies he feels some commonality and his feelings are based on the loneliness no unrequited love. There is further suggestion in his description of his situation as a ‘shipwreck’, which would be the 16th Century equivalent of a ‘car-crash relationship’ where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. The fact this happened in his ‘ill-adventured youth’ is no surprise as this sonnet is dominant by the exaggerated emotional peaks and troughs of young romance and passion.
(The fact this is not explicit within the sonnet means that we can generalise the meaning of the sonnet and recognise the emotions as being relevant to anyone suffering any form of depression or despair)
I’d also comment on the oxymoronic plea for Sleep and its darkness to ‘restore the light;/With dark forgetting’. We have the contrast of the physical darkness and the light mentality that the poetic voice wants restored through a purging of his misery in the emptiness of sleep.
Returning to the idea of this poem expressing hyperbolic level of despair, he uses imagery of his ‘waking eyes’ being abused and cruelly mistreated as they ‘wail their scorn’, which represents his self-loathing and recognition of his worthlessness as a result of his feelings being unrequited. He asks for this to be the limit of his suffering and describes dream-filled sleep as ‘the torment of the night’s untruth’. This implies that his dreams relate to his worldly desires and thus represent forlorn hope. The use of ‘torment’ is again hyperbolic and it is as if hope/dreams are torturing him. The poem ends with a description of the ‘day’s disdain’, which again shows just how worthless he feels, as if his failure is a judgement accepted by all the world. In reality, this feeling is confined to his own head as he beats himself up about his inability to get what he wants (that wasn’t meant to sound so crude, I promise!).
In the third quatrain, there is a bitterness to the imperative ‘Cease dreams’ castigating them as ‘liars’ that ‘add more grief’ and ‘aggravate my sorrow’, leaving him even more depressed.
It is almost as if the poetic voice is talking himself out of his initial intention. By the final couplet he now wants to be ’embrac[ed by] clouds in vain’, implying sleep void of dreams, but takes this even further to suggest he should ‘never wake’ The clear implication of a sleep that never ends is that he really wants to be embraced by Death. This suggestion and connection throughout aggrandises the extent of his suffering. By linking his misery to mourning and death, in turn he amplify his love for Delia.
Nothing here that really stood out for me. It is a standard Shakespearean form sonnet, with iambic pentameter throughout, alternate line rhyme-scheme and three quatrains before a climatic final couplet.
Misery, despair, desolation, anguish and depression throughout, with occasional bitterness and anger flaring when contemplating deceptive dreams.
Get in! This website loves Christina Rossetti and her artistic or religious sacrifice to be thoroughly miserable pretty much all of the time. So much so, that if I ever have a daughter she will be named Rossetti (presuming I can convince my wife!).
This sonnet comes from a sonnet of sonnets called Monna Innominata that I’ve analysed previously on the site. In this sonnet Rossetti exposes the depth of her forlorn desire to be with the man she loves, but she squashes her feelings in devotion to God.
slumber – a deep and restful sleep;
wan – pale and sickly complexion.
I dream of you, to wake: would that I might
Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,
As, Summer ended, Summer birds take flight.
In happy dreams I hold you full in night.
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Thus only in a dream we are at one,
Thus only in a dream we give and take
The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Although Rossetti is without a doubt my favourite poet, I have an overwhelming sympathy for her. Her life wasn’t one to envy as she struggled with finances, family illness, her love life and being torn between faith and feelings.
I’ve written loads about her life and influences in the section of the site dedicated to the Rossetti A2 selection. However, for this poem you probably only need to know that she was serially unlucky/ridiculous in love. This poem was written in 1881, when she was 51 and past it in many respects, and seems to refer to her unfulfilled feelings for Charles Bagot Cayley. He proposed to her in 1866, but she rejected him as he held different religious beliefs. However, they stayed close friends to the end of their days. In the poem we see a struggle between the desire to be with a man she loves fighting a desire to be a devout Christian. This internal conflict makes her relish death and dreams as a release from her suffering.
Interestingly, Rossetti saw Monna Innominata (the longer poem) as a breakout from a poet tradition that only ever considered women in relation to the value men placed in their beauty. The title means Unnamed woman in Latin and refers to the silent voice of women in literature. She meant to expose the real and raw emotions within women. Although she is not the first to have done this, poetry was still very much a male dominated sphere and so her perspective would have been something extremely rarely shared.
While this appears in the War, Death and Sleep sections, I think it is fairer to classify this poem as being about faith and love, but they are tied together through twinned ideas of the lands of dreams and death.
Real life is conspicuous through its absence in this poem, which shows that Rossetti’s focus was elsewhere – on the love she never followed and the embrace of death and expected salvation.
Rossetti has a pleasant dream of the chap she loves, but is miffed when she wakes up and finds herself back in her rotten state of existence. She wants to continue sleeping, but only if her dreams are going to feature this man.
However, in the fourth line she concedes that at this stage in her life (with summer behind her) it is no longer possible for this dream to become a reality. Her youthful fancy that this was possible has buggered off with the birds.
She presents us with an image of herself as being fulfilled and happy in her dreams, but waking up to appear sick and miserable. The traditional association of day and light as the time we relish and live in is spun on its head for Rossetti who only lives in the night, through these dreams.
Having made her point about how she feels, she sets out an argument that if she can only be happy in these small snatches of dreams, then surely the eternal sleep of death would be preferable to life.
Language and techniques
Consider first of all the intensity of the word ‘dream’. Although she frames it as a dream that has just popped into her head at night, she is really representing her deepest desire. Our dreams are the things that drive us and make us move forward.
I’d also comment on the use of the second person pronoun ‘you’, which makes this poem deeply personal and specific and yet if we read the rest of Monna Innominata these are feelings she cannot easily share with this man as she self-represses. However, this is what she wants to tell him and the truth of what is going on in our hearts.
The depth of her desire indicates that this is not a base type of lust, but rather a deep emotional connection between two people. She refers to the subject as her ‘dear companion’, which has connotations of respect, trust and friendship rather than anything sexual.
After the reality of the opening line, Rossetti wishes for a deep and restful ‘slumber’ in which her dreams will be unending. ‘Slumber’ is a beautiful word that suggests a sleep that is deep, long and restful. The idea of this contrasts with the sharpness of the awakening from the dream within the opening line.
In the fourth line, we have an interesting metaphor. She represents her dreams as ‘Summer birds’ and wishes to find a sleep where she does not have to face the prospect of ‘Summer ended’. This reference to the seasons connects with the stage of our lives and our mortality. Summer is the peak of the year, the brightest and happiest time of our lives, but it will always come to an end. When it does ‘Summer birds take flight’ and are not seen again until the next spring. Rossetti could here be simply suggesting that she wants her dreams to go on forever or that she feels her summer is over already, but I think there is a broader implication.
I see this as Rossetti’s life mantra and being her argument for religious conversion of her partner. If we see our lives as represented by the four seasons, then although we may enjoy the fertility of spring and fulfillment of summer, it will eventually decline and end. However, a dream where summer never ends could represent the prospect of eternal paradise together in heaven and thus be a subtle instruction of what she feels he should do to ensure their dream does come true.
Moving on to the second quatrain, we have a beautiful, contrary image of Rossetti full of life, with colour and ‘blush again’ in her cheeks while she sleeps, but when she returns to reality she is ‘wan’ as if she were sickly or near death. The pitch black of the night is made ‘brighter than sunniest day that ever shone’ by her dreams. Her dreams don’t only ‘make day of night’, but they are better than ever she thought reality could be as her superlative ‘sunniest’ is modified to make it impossibly brighter.
If the opening octave sets out her feelings and desires, then the sestet serves to make a convincing argument out of them. The repetition of ‘thus only in a dream’ gives us only one possible conclusion to draw from her ideas. If only dreams enable them to be ‘at one’ and ‘give and take’ (which represents the bond of marriage), then the only conclusion is that ‘To die were surely sweeter than to live’. Notice that ‘give and take’ is inverted in the following line to ‘take or give’, which could represent the equality of the union she is dreaming about, with giving and taking roles being performed by both partners.
Rossetti suggests that ‘the faith maketh rich’ those who marry as it provides them with an eternal life together. Such is the strength of her faith that she believes this is the only possible path to happiness, as all else is given a time limit, which she can’t abide. The soothing sibilance of ‘sleep is sweeter’ and ‘surely sweeter’ position death as a welcome release from the agony of existence. Poor Rossetti is so distraught at the thought of losing this man, that she can only embrace her love once it is assured for eternity.
The final line also demonstrates the absolute power of her feelings. She doesn’t care that death would mean ‘nothing new beneath the sun’ as for her he is everything and the only thing she wants, so can do without anything else.
She sounds like she’d be a bit clingy to me 😉
The opening line is so powerful because she begins with this rich, emotional desire or longing for her subject, but the purity of this feeling is interrupted jarringly by the certainty of its ending with her waking. The brief pause serves to illustrate the frustration of her pleasant dreams that fade all too quickly to reveal reality.
The colon immediately after then sparks Rossetti’s desires to run on unchecked for two/two and a half lines (with enjambment linking the first and second lines), before we have another pair of caesuras in the fourth line, which hark back to the fear of her happy thoughts being short lived as the birds head off for warmer climes.
I mentioned it above, but you could comment on the repetition of ‘thus’ to make her argument seem conclusive and impossible to disagree with (despite the fact she’s clearly being an idiot!).
You could also talk generally about the split of the poem: with the octave setting out the problem of how crap life is without constant access to this chap; and then the sestet giving us a solution, to embrace death.
Her tone is all over the place in this sonnet. At first we have the loftiest of desires and you can almost hear her swooning while contemplating her love. However, this is sharply interrupted by reality on a number of occasions throughout the octave. In the sestet we have a fatalistic determination to embrace death, whether to escape the misery of life or to embrace the eternal dream of togetherness.